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great jeopardy David Beckham is gambling his carefully-crafted image with Qatar link

Former England footballer’s deal with Qatar comes with great jeopardy as well as huge reward


David Beckham in Qatar

David Beckham in Qatar

David Beckham in Qatar

David Beckham left Doha before the world’s media descended on Qatar last week, which meant there would not be so much as even an awkward question shouted over the shoulders of the security detail to the man hired by the organisers of the 2022 World Cup finals.

Beckham’s meetings with Qatari royalty, as well as those with the activist Malala Yousafzai, and the Afghan Girls Robotics Team evacuated from their country last year, took place at an earlier date, to be fired out the cannon of the prodigal son’s Instagram account days later.

That gold-plated Beckham content certainly encompassed a lot of what Qatar would like to project to the world, including the Doha Forum, attended by Beckham himself and addressed, among others, by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Beckham was interviewed at the same forum, a diplomatic showpiece event, by Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al Thani, sister of Qatar’s ruling emir, and he declared it an honour to discuss “the role of sport in culture and creativity”. By Wednesday, the Beckham Instagram feed was back on more familiar ground, the famous inked wrist adorned with a new watch endorsement. The official reason given for Beckham leaving Doha when he did was to fulfil his part in the preparations for the wedding of his eldest son, Brooklyn.

What is Beckham up to? A man whose popularity has been built in part on a steadfast refusal to adopt any strong view one way or the other has made the most political decision of his life to sign up to Qatar.

The £150m fee for the 15-year contract he signed with the Gulf State is broadly accurate, albeit a deal with many different commercial partners and not all the funds guaranteed.

For football’s premium heritage brand, deployed shrewdly around the world, those are very good numbers, albeit also a gamble of sorts.

A ban on same-sex relationships. The deaths of around 6,500 migrant workers building the Qatar World Cup infrastructure.

A rotten bidding process from which 15 of the 22 FIFA executive committee members who voted on that Zurich day 12 years ago have been accused of criminal charges or faced bans.

All of this is part of Qatar 2022, and now in its way, it is part of Beckham too. He has been co-opted into Qatar’s endless earnest talk about legacy and transformation, which ignores all the things that could be changed in Qatar immediately if there was the will to do so.

Of course, Beckham does not believe in the denial of basic human rights, and one is assured he wants labour reforms to progress as quickly as possible.

What the Beckham machine is banking on is that Qatar’s promise of change is authentic. It can be thin gruel to hear Hassan Al-Thawadi, the 2022 secretary general, advance the view that Qatar would be a much more conservative place without the changes hosting a World Cup has wrought. Yet that seems to be the key thrust of the defence: things could be worse.

There is some cover too for Beckham in Qatar, including the decision by Unicef, the humanitarian charity to which he has long allied himself, to open an office in Doha. There is Formula One, and the many figures from the world of fashion and art, who have been courted.

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All of them are putting something at stake and, in Beckham’s case, it is that unique universal appeal that he wields: to be rich but not too venal, a star but never inaccessible, and never on the wrong side in the big arguments.

Qatar, and its innate conservatism, is his most problematic client, and also his most lucrative.

Those around him are at pains to point out that he has done his due diligence. That the technocrats of the modern state, such as Al-Thawadi, have assured Beckham change is coming.

Beckham is of the view that boycotts are not the way forward and that football can be an agent for change. He has been there around six times since Covid travel restrictions were lifted last summer and believes the Gulf state is making true progress.

He likes to earn a living too and no doubt that focuses the mind to see the best in a country.

As a player, and later campaigning for England’s doomed 2018 World Cup bid, he was unusually willing to take questions on any subject.

There was never any evasion. It seems what the Qatar deal wants of him is more of that ‘Goldenballs’ social media soft power and less of the awkward back and forth of more traditional exchanges.

Yet last week, as was the case last month, it was Beckham’s former England team-mate Gareth Southgate answering difficult questions about whether he and his players would take a stand on human rights and migrant workers.

They were asked if a Qatar 2022 boycott was ever considered and one can see in Southgate that at some point he knows the England party will have to say something.

The England team and their manager had no influence over where this tournament was staged. The decision was made when many of the players were children.

Turning down a hard-won World Cup place was never a realistic option, given the short professional life of an elite footballer. Southgate may wonder privately if the questions about the suitability of the World Cup host would be better directed at those who had a choice whether to earn money from Qatar.

No prospect of any real answers so far, although perhaps that time will come. It may feel to Beckham that, as the tournament draws nearer, the hard questions will dissipate in the bright light of the football itself.

No doubt, it will for a period, but not for ever, and this is a contract for life he has signed. Everyone has to pick their side, and for some, that comes with great reward, and with jeopardy, too.

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